NEW YORK — The first thing to remember after Serena Williams served her way into the U.S. Open final in 66 minutes Thursday night against Anastasija Sevastova is that, one year ago, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion was in a hospital bed, facing life-threatening postnatal complications.
Williams’s return to the final at Arthur Ashe Stadium included a 6-3, 6-0 dismantling of Sevastova in which she won 12 of the final 13 games.
And then there’s the history: Williams, who will turn 37 later this month, returns to her first U.S. Open final since 2014. She will be seeking her 24th Grand Slam title, tying the modern-day record of Margaret Court, who claimed her last championship in 1973.
That kind of milestone could consume any player, but it wasn’t why Williams got choked up before a crowd of 22,450 in the wake of her win over Sevastova.
“Last year, I was literally fighting for my life in the hospital. I think I was on my fourth surgery by now,” Williams said. “What’s today? I was on my third surgery. I had one more to go still. To come from that, in the hospital bed, not being able to move and walk and do anything, now only a year later, I’m not training, but I’m actually in these finals, in two in a row. This is the beginning. I’m not there yet. I’m on the climb still. I just feel like not only is my future bright — even though I’m not a spring chicken — I still have a very, very bright future. That is super exciting for me.”
Williams zipped into her 31st career Grand Slam singles final and her ninth at the U.S. Open with only a minor stumble to start the match, which was played in much cooler conditions with a closed roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium because of a thunderstorm.
Sevastova took the first two games in her first semifinal at a major tournament as Williams needed a few minutes to settle herself and get her timing down.
The 28-year-old, who is ranked 18th in the world and hails from the same Latvian hometown as the New York Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis, looked as if she might be able to keep Williams off rhythm with her diverse arsenal. Leading up to the match, Sevastova’s versatile game had been compared to Karolina Pliskova’s and Roberta Vinci’s — the players who had beaten Williams in her two most recent trips to the semifinals in New York.
But after Williams stormed back to even things at 2-2, 40-40, Sevastova deployed her favorite tool, her drop shot, and it failed her, skidding down the side of the net and landing on her side of the court. Williams broke her service to take a 3-2 lead and won nine of the next 10 games.
The American pulled out a few old tricks of her own to catch Sevastova off guard: Williams went to the net on 28 points, far more than she has since she came back on tour. She only lost four.
“I have great volleys, or else I wouldn’t have won so many Grand Slam doubles titles. I know how to do it. It’s just the fact of turning it on,” Williams said. “I felt like I’ve lost a lot of matches against players like this. Not a lot but I’ve lost some. I wanted to see what I can do better to win matches against players that get a lot of balls back. Keep trying to improve.”
The crowd, whose bustle was amplified thanks to the closed roof, urged Williams on the entire time as Sevastova grew more and more emotional. The second set took 27 minutes, and the match clocked in as Williams’s shortest of the fortnight even though the Latvian was the first high-level counterpuncher Williams has faced since the Wimbledon final, which she lost to Angelique Kerber.
Her greatest asset, her serve, was as devastating as ever. Williams lost just seven points on her first serve and hit four aces. She had 31 winners.
Williams faces Osaka having dropped only one set this tournament. She is the oldest U.S. Open finalist, besting then-34-year-old Martina Navratilova’s record in 1991.
As far as her comeback goes, Williams entered the tournament ranked 26th and will be in the top 20 again when she finishes, ranked as high as 16th.
She said she estimates she’s playing at 50 or 60 percent of her physical potential and will face a litmus test Saturday against Osaka, who dispatched Keys, 6-2, 6-4. The 20-year-old Osaka, the first Japanese woman to make a Grand Slam final in the Open era, beat Williams, her idol, 6-3, 6-2, in Miami in Williams’s second tournament back after maternity leave.
Williams doesn’t know how much she can take from that March meeting with Osaka, but she feels certain that she will do better in the rematch. As she said Thursday while holding back tears, good things lie ahead.